The Palestinian Authority became a member of the International Criminal Court in Wednesday and was marking the occasion with a low-key ceremony at the court’s headquarters.
Palestinians signed the court’s founding treaty in January and their membership came into force Wednesday, an event welcomed by activists who see it as an opportunity to bring accountability to years of conflict between Palestinians and Israel.
Israel is not a member of the ICC, but the country’s military and civilian leaders could now face charges if they are believed to have committed crimes on Palestinian territory.
The court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, opened a preliminary investigation in mid-January after the Palestinians formally accepted the court’s jurisdiction dating back to just before last year’s Israel-Hamas conflict.
Beyond seeking war crimes charges against Israel at the court, the Palestinians want the UN Security Council to set a deadline for an Israeli troop withdrawal from the West Bank and hope for new momentum of a Palestinian-led international movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions.
But a legal and diplomatic showdown isn’t inevitable, as aides say Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas isn’t interested in an all-out confrontation with Israel. War crimes charges against Israel could be years away and Washington likely will soften any Security Council resolution on Palestinian statehood.
Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riad Malki was meeting with court officials Wednesday, but it’s largely ceremonial.
Attempting to lower expectations among Palestinians of speedy court action, Malki told the Voice of Palestine radio Wednesday: “I don’t want to disappoint our people, but the ICC procedures are slow and long and might face lots of obstacles and challenges and might take years.”
Bensouda’s preliminary review is seeking to determine if there are grounds for an investigation of possible war crimes in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — lands captured by Israel in 1967 and recognized by the UN General Assembly in 2012 as the “state of Palestine.”
A senior Palestinian official said the Palestinians will wait for the outcome of that review — which can take months or years — before considering further action.
Earlier this year, the Palestinians accepted the court’s jurisdiction dating back to June 2014, to ensure that last summer’s Gaza war between Israel and Hamas will be included in any review.
The Palestinians suffered heavy civilian casualties in the war, prompting allegations by some rights groups that Israel committed war crimes. Hamas, which rules Gaza, is also exposed to war crimes charges because it fired rockets indiscriminately at Israeli civilian areas.
Israel’s settlement construction, deemed illegal by much of the world, is also bound to be examined by the prosecutor. Since 1967, Israel has moved more than 550,000 of its civilians to lands that have been defined as occupied.
Palestine’s court membership could help shift focus to settlements as a legal and not just a political issue, said Alex Whiting, a former official in the international prosecutor’s office.
Israel and Palestine also will have to show that they are looking into possible war crimes on their own — a shield against ICC involvement if deemed credible. Israel says it’s investigating alleged violations by its troops in Gaza. Hamas is not investigating its actions, claiming rocket attacks were self-defense.
Israel vehemently opposed the Palestinians joining the court. Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said unilateral Palestinian moves are “absolutely counterproductive” and will make it harder to resume negotiations.
France is working on a Security Council resolution that would set the parameters for a Palestinian statehood deal. The draft would define the pre-1967 frontier as a reference point for border talks, designate Jerusalem as a capital of two states and call for a fair solution for Palestinian refugees.
Last year, the council rejected a Palestinian resolution demanding an Israeli withdrawal within three years. The US opposed that draft, saying Palestinian statehood can only be achieved through negotiations, but didn’t have to use its veto.
French diplomats now say they are working on a new draft with their allies, including the US, to ensure broad support. A resolution could be introduced later this month.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to repudiate his support for Palestinian statehood in the run-up to the election in Israel last month, prompting the US to say it would re-evaluate its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a possible sign that Washington would no longer shield Israel in the Security Council. Netanyahu later backtracked, saying he still supported a “sustainable, peaceful two-state solution,” and holding Abbas to blame for the failure of negotiations.
Israel opposes imposed parameters for negotiations, but Palestinians are also skeptical.
They want internationally backed ground rules, after Netanyahu rejected the pre-1967 lines as a starting point. However, they also fear they’ll get a resolution that lacks enforceable deadlines and instead introduces the definition of Israel as a Jewish state. Abbas opposes such wording as a threat to the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees.
Israel opposes such a “return,” since it could mean the end of Israel as the world’s sole majority Jewish state. It argues that Palestinian refugees should be absorbed by the new Palestine under any accord, just as Israel has absorbed Jewish refugees, including those forced to leave countries in the Middle East and north Africa.